Rejoice action fans over this region! South-east Asia has a new action hero hailing from Indonesia, and his name is Iko Uwais. We've already got Tony Jaa showcasing Thailand's Muay Thai, and now we've got Uwais to introduce a different brand of Silat which we have been exposed to thus far, thanks to the SEA Games but that's more like a Wushu event, which is more exhibition. It's still quite amazing to see what is usually seen on TV as executed in exhibition pace, to take on an entirely different form when in combat mode. Merantau - and Singapore has to add a “Warrior” to the title so that we know it's an action film, duh - is a well executed, entertaining film as far as actioners are concerned.
Uwais stars as Yuda, a coming of age young adult who has to leave his village and go through a rites of passage in a Merantau, which is something equivalent of an Australian aboriginal walkabout. He sets his sights on Jakarta and has plans to set up a Silat school, only for his contact to go missing with nary a trace. Bumming around while figuring out his next course of action, he chanced upon the siblings of Adit (Yusuf Aulia) and Astri (Sisca Jessica), the latter whom is picked up by gangsters to be part of a sex trafficking ring, and thus begin his discovery of his destiny and calling as the unofficial protector against the meek and weak.
Yes the storyline isn't much to behold naturally, though as far as action films go, this one satisfies its own cursory, flimsy tale to hold all the spectacular action sequences together, giving it some reason to have Uwais go on a rampage, showcasing personal prowess, and to add Silat as a martial arts of choice amongst so many that have its fair share of a cinematic outing, from Ip Man's Wing Chun, to Ong Bak's Muay Thai. It's hard hitting silat harimau here, which has its distinctive low centre of gravity positioning, sweeping leg motions to unbalance the opposition, and very direct and hard hitting palming aimed squarely at the opponent's chest to literally knock the wind out of.
What also worked here is the action cinematography. We all remember how Jaa smashed into the scene with its repetitive action sequences cut from different camera angles, done ad nausem. Here, the filmmakers had good sense in working a very wonderfully designed, and common sensical presentation in not relying on quick edits and jump cuts, allowing the action to flow naturally, and presented in its full glory. I particularly enjoyed moments where a revolving 360 degree view gets employed, especially when Yuda has to tackle opponents all round.
And Yuda is no one man superman too, which worked well for the story, having to see his fair share of failures, as well as shortcomings in his rookie fish-out-of-water situation. While there are moments inserted for dramatic breathing space, the action sequences aren't forgotten and got interspersed adequately within the first few acts, until the last one which became a non-stop, adrenaline pumping finale that was reminiscence of old Hong Kong action flicks, or even Bruce Lee ones, where the protagonist go up against incredible odds, and one on one (or two) situations against Caucasian villains, who are portrayed here in quite over-the-top fashion in need of a good hard kick up the arse.
Granted this is no perfect film with a number of continuity errors spotted, the set action pieces were a sight to behold despite some moments being wire-obvious, mixing things up with components other than Silat all the way, with a few which stood out as campy fun. Keep your eye out for that towel scene, and one of my personal favourites was one that involved a bamboo pole which the trailer included. Uwais also proves that he's quite comfortable with the sickle and metallic staff / batons which got used quite frequently here by hero and villains alike.
Action junkies will do yourselves no favour if you miss Iko Uwais maiden cinematic outing on the big screen. It may not be perfect, but it mattered for what it set out to do – establish a new action hero from our region, and to promote the form of martial arts in Silat.